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If there is an art to breathing, Jill O’Bryan has made a career of it. Since 2000, the NY artist has focused on a series of drawings based on capturing her own breaths over periods of time. Along the way, she has calculated that in a 97-year lifetime, she would breathe a billion breaths. To celebrate longevity and a life well-lived, she has created a piece that has been installed outside the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.DSCN3750

When you walk by “One Billion Breaths in a Lifetime,” you’re invited to complete the art by gazing at your own reflection in the polished chrome of the letters. Reflection, not just of your face, but of your life, feels called for. If we each have around a billion breaths, how will we use them?

Do you take a breath to say words of love, or to say words of hate?   Do you take a breath to whisper a secret or to shout a curse? To slow your heart or to fuel your passion?  The breath is something that we take for granted, and yet it is the first thing we wait to hear when a baby is born, and the last thing we look for when a person dies.

We can use our breaths in so many positive ways:

To sing a song

To laugh out loud

To whistle a tune

To blow bubbles with a child

To blow out candles on a cake

To blow a kiss to someone

To warm our hands

To say a prayer

To run a marathon

To release tension in the body

To ease our pain

To help us sleep

Yet much of the time modern life works against us, and we subconsciously inhibit our natural breathing rhythm. Our breaths are shallow and tense as we wait for traffic to move, or as we practice the angry words we are waiting to say to someone. Compare that tight feeling to the relaxation that occurs after you use your breath for a big, unrestrained belly laugh. When was the last time you laughed that way?

The breath is so important in the yogic tradition that we have an entire practice, pranayama, for learning how to control the breath, or life force. Focusing on the breath, especially to deepen it and slow it down, is the best way to get in touch with our autonomic nervous systems and to counter the effects of stress and anxiety. Because the breath links the body and mind, it can be useful at those times when body and mind are discordant. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests focusing on the in and out of breathing to bring them back together again: “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in…Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” In, out, in, out, in, out – until the mind and body are unified and peaceful once again.

The idea of a billion also represents abundance, but we know all too well that something that is plentiful is often wasted. We even have an expression, “Don’t waste your breath,” and although it means something different, it’s good advice to follow. At 12-16 breaths per minute, even one billion breaths don’t last forever. We have no choice but to breathe — we cannot hold onto our breaths, or save them for some unknown future purpose. We can only soften our grip and choose each day how we will make the most of them.DSCN3754

“Love wins, love wins,” went the chant in front of the U.S. Supreme Court this morning after the historic decision in support of gay marriage. I felt tremendously lucky to be there at that moment, with my sister, friends, and hundreds of other people whose lives and loves depended on the outcome. Even now, several hours later, I find it difficult not to tear up when I think about that emotional moment when the decision was announced.Supreme Court_28

Honore de Balzac wrote that, “The more one judges, the less one loves,” but today we took a huge stride toward acceptance of all people, toward judging a little less, and loving a lot more. This is truly a decision that will create acceptance and support for so many people in our communities, and will hurt no one. We all benefit by the extension of marriage to everyone.

Gratitude goes to the plaintiffs in the case whose personal stories spoke for so many others. They exemplified Maya Angelou’s words:

In the flush of love’s light, we dare to be brave. And suddenly we see that love costs all we are, and will ever be. Yet it is only love which sets us free.

At the end of each semester, I receive a packet of narrative comments that my students have submitted as part of the course evaluation. Leery as I sometimes am about reading them, they provide an opportunity to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and how I can improve the course. One of the things that my students most appreciate is the opportunity to heal through writing, and easily the most valuable assignment to them is the letter of gratitude that I ask them to write. The gratitude letter doesn’t just say “thank you,” it is a full acknowledgement of what someone has done for you and an appreciation of what that gift means.

But while assigning the gratitude letter to my students year after year, I have only rarely written one myself. Reading their comments recently made me realize that I have a group of people to whom I owe tremendous gratitude:

To my sisters:

Thank you for being my first friends, for teaching me about loyalty, the importance of relationships, and how to care for others. With you, I never felt alone – someone was always a step ahead and a step behind, protecting me. Being with you was like being in a private club with its own secrets and rituals. I think that’s why I hated camp, dropped out of Girl Scouts and never wanted to live in a dorm. My sisters were, for the longest time, the only group I needed to be part of. Remember how, no matter how old we were, Dad always referred to us collectively as “you girls”?

Thank you for teaching me how to share, no matter how reluctantly. Thank you for giving me the freedom to be myself. I know I can still be my most authentic when I am with you. Yes, we judge, doubt and second-guess each other sometimes, but we also accept each other, no matter how many flaws. We have learned through each other’s mistakes, and we have made mistakes together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrenda Shaughnessy has a poem called “Why I Wish I Had More Sisters”, where she writes, “I wish I had more sisters, enough to fight with and still have plenty more to confess to.” Over the years, we have fought and we have confessed; in fact we have experienced a full range of human emotion. When I was cruel to one of you, I learned shame. When one of you was cruel to me, I learned forgiveness. We have carried anger, jealousy and resentment with us at times, but also love, kindness and compassion.

I am never at a loss for conversation when I am with you. We can laugh and cry, celebrate and grieve, in equal measure. Shaughnessy writes, “None of us would be forced to be stronger than we could be.” We have proven this to be true over and over again, as we have gone through difficult times together. When one of is hurting, there is someone to hold her up. We don’t always understand each other, but we never give up on each other.

Finally, thank you for making my husband part of the family, for loving him and our children almost as much as your own. We are stronger as a family because of the support and safe space you have provided. There is a synergy to love that is shared.

You continue to inspire me, to be my collective North Star. You are smart, dedicated, curious, funny and accomplished women. You keep me honest, you force me to grow, and I love you for it. I don’t wish I had more sisters – I realize I have just enough.

 

Why can one person walk with ease across a rope strung between two tall buildings, while another wobbles on a beam five times as wide? Why can one person meet life’s challenges with calmness and purpose, while the next person seems buffeted by the slightest turbulence? The difference may well be the quality of equanimity, “mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.”

My own recent failures to maintain composure led me to reflect on my capacity for equanimity. I realize that when I am over-tired or surprised, or when dealing with phone or cable companies, I can sometimes completely lose any equanimity I possess. But at least I am noticing when it happens, which I believe is a step toward deepening my ability to stay calm.

Benjamin Franklin was well-known for developing his character through self-monitoring. He had a checklist of 13 virtues that he considered important, and he evaluated himself every day to see how he had done. His virtues included things like temperance, frugality, sincerity and humility. But number 11 on his list was the virtue of tranquility, which he described as, “be not disturbed by trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” That sounds a lot like equanimity to me.benjamin-franklin-scorecard

Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal writes that the Pali word “upekkha” can be translated as equanimity.  It literally means “to look over”, to become the observer rather than the thinker, to see the big picture. Perhaps the tightrope walker is practicing upekkha when he calmly walks between buildings without a net – is he observing himself from above, visualizing not just himself, but the rope, the buildings, the sky, the earth?

It’s important to realize that maintaining an even temper during difficult times doesn’t mean that someone is apathetic. It is merely the balancing point between suppressing emotions and feelings on the one hand, and overly identifying with them on the other. It’s the sweet spot where you accept that you can’t control the actions of other people, only your own actions and reactions.

Equanimity is considered one of the four great virtues in Buddhism (along with lovingkindness, compassion and the ability to feel joy with others). A study at UCLA on spirituality in higher education concluded that “Equanimity may well be the prototypic defining quality of a spiritual person,” someone who can find meaning in times of hardship and who feels generally at peace with life.

DSCN3334So how do we develop equanimity? Pay attention. Observe what you are experiencing in body, mind and spirit. Engage in self-reflection so that you are more in touch with your thoughts and feelings. Notice when you are reacting rather than responding. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we commit to “meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as possible,” and embodying an “openhearted presence” when engaging with others.

Bringing more mindfulness to each situation will help you make the subtle shift to being the observer, but it takes practice. You may not always succeed, and sometimes your composure will be shaken, but look back at the end of each day, much like Ben Franklin did, and set an intention for greater equanimity tomorrow.

Nothing gave me so much contentment in childhood as curling up somewhere with a good book and losing myself for a while. And if one good book was a pleasure, then summer reading – book after book after book – was a feast.

In that spirit, I made a list of the best books I’ve read this past year – a feast of summer reading for you:

(In no particular order)

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – Will we ever run out of stories to tell about World War II? The sheer number of books and films in this genre speaks to the importance of telling a story from multiple perspectives, whether in fiction or real life. Doerr’s novel is a great addition to the shelf. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing to the present day, it tells the story, in parallel narratives, of a French girl and a German boy. Both of them damaged in some way, and struggling to survive the war, they touch, and even save, each other’s lives in improbable ways, over space and time. It is only rarely a happy read, but is amazingly touching, poignant and captivating.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – This piece of historical fiction by the author of The Color of Water is a new twist on the tale of abolitionist John Brown and his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. The fictional “Onion”, a boy Brown plucked from slavery, narrates the story many years later. Onion is at first a reluctant traveling companion to the God-fearing, Bible-preaching Brown, but he comes to love him, and his observations of the foolhardy, yet brave, abolitionist are sharp, yet funny and warm. It took me a while to get absorbed in this book, but I was glad I stuck with it.photo

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — This best-selling novel is both a love story and an immigrant story. Nigerians Ifemulu and Obinze are soulmates, but after Ifemulu leaves for school in America, they are separated for years. Not able to join her, Obinze goes to England on a visitor’s visa and stays after it expires. Both of them struggle to adapt to the new cultures in which they find themselves; perhaps the best part of this book are Ifemulu’s observations on Americans and American life, as seen by an outsider. [The author also has an interesting TED talk about the danger of telling a story from only a single perspective.]

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian – Bohjalian is the only male writer I know who can write believably in a woman’s voice. This time he does it from the perspective of a teenage girl, one who becomes a runaway after a devastating nuclear accident in which both her parents are implicated. We feel her struggles with whom to trust, what choices to make and how to come to terms with all she has lost. Bohjalian is not a “feel-good” writer – there is always loss in his novels – but he tells a compelling story.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – This is the non-fiction entry on my list, but it reads like a novel.  Boo takes us into life in a Mumbai slum situated right beside the international airport. Juxtaposing the clean and glittery approach to Mumbai that visitors see, with the grim and gritty life of those scratching out a living at its edge in Annawadi, she tells the stories of Abdul, Asha and other residents trying to get ahead, or at least get by. Winner of the National Book Award, this is a story told with great humanity even as it deals with seemingly hopeless situations.

The poet Kyle Dargan has said that, “..being a poet means I notice stuff for a living. To write is to first see or hear some element of the world and then attempt to render it with language.” The books on my list do indeed have poetry in them, and their writers are masters of noticing, rendering and presenting us with the gift of story.

Enjoy!

Most of us can probably rattle off any number of things on a daily basis that stress us out. So when you hear that April is stress awareness month, you’re probably asking why you need a special month to let you know something so obvious. But it is one thing to see the path you’re on, and something quite different to envision where you’d like to be and figure out how to get there.

magicwandWe get so used to living with our stressors that they become like old shoes we don’t even notice are wearing out – until the sole falls off or the heel breaks. To find a new way to live calls for paying attention to that old shoe before it breaks. It requires a heightened awareness of stress, some self-exploration, and a commitment to change. I don’t have a magic wand that will whisk away stress, but I do have a 6-step plan for identifying your stressors, seeing how they affect you, and learning ways to lessen their impact:

  1. Just how stressed are you? Assessment is always a good place to begin, and the Perceived Stress Scale is one way to do that. This scale has been the foremost instrument used in self-reported stress studies for years. It’s quick and easy to score, and you can even see how you compare to averages for your age group and sex.
  2. What are your stress symptoms? Stress affects all of us differently, but there are some common physical, mental and emotional symptoms that are often related to stress. Perhaps that nagging back ache, or the irritability you feel sometimes, are related to stress. Use a symptoms checklist to see how you are faring.
  3. What are your triggers? Is your stress mostly related to the hassles of daily life, such as traffic and time pressures, or do you have bigger issues like chronic illness, relationship problems or financial worries?

Once you know a little more about yourself and your stressors, consider these steps:

  1. Eliminate, or interact differently with, your stressors. The simpler strategies here are delegating tasks and saying no to new commitments. Then consider whether the things you really value are represented in how you spend most of your time – should you make changes to live more in alignment with your values? Another way to change interaction is improving communication – thereby strengthening relationships and perhaps avoiding some conflict-related stress.
  2. Change how you think about your stressors. What’s your story? How do you perceive your situation, your misfortunes, and the hand you’ve been dealt? Practice substituting positive statements for some of the negative self-talk in your mental narration. Use humor to defuse stressful situations. Consider your blessings and express gratitude for them. Bring mindful attention to the people and tasks you deal with.
  3. Live more peacefully with the persistent stressors. Let’s face it – some stressors don’t go away and aren’t that amenable to re-thinking. That’s when social, emotional and spiritual resources come into play. Call on your friends and community for support; cry on someone’s shoulder; talk and laugh with others. Cultivate a spiritual life; feel connected to something bigger than yourself; spend time in nature. And finally, incorporate some kind of relaxation technique into your daily life: meditation, breathing, yoga, and massage are all good choices.Woman in the sun

We can discover santosha (contentment) every day if we look for it. As Walt Whitman said, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and the shadows will fall behind you.”

Quick – can you name your five main senses? When was the last time you really tuned in to them? We take the senses for granted, probably relying too much on sight, if anything. Only when we lose one do we appreciate how important it is. As Helen Keller poignantly put it, “Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful.”

So one way of being more mindful of self and surroundings is to fully utilize all five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. I have a book from the 1960s called “Sense Relaxation Below Your Mind”. The title conjures up images of psychedelic experiences and love beads, doesn’t it? And the book certainly has a lot of artsy photos of blissful people engaging in touchy-feely exercises in sensory awareness. But it is actually a useful source of ideas for re-establishing your connection to your senses, and using them to mediate your experience of the world.

The thing I like most to do from the book is a sense walk, either in a familiar place or somewhere new. The way to do the sense walk is to concentrate for 3 minutes at a time on just one sense: first sound, then smell, then touch, then sight. After the first four, you sit down and eat something very slowly and mindfully, focusing on taste. You finish the experience by continuing to walk mindfully, seeing if you can fuse all five senses into a complete experience.

When I do a sense walk at this time of year, the signs of spring are foremost in my experience:

What do I hear? Birds singing and chirping more than just a week or two ago, but also sirens, traffic, children playing.

What do I smell? Mulch and manure as plant beds are replenished for the season; cooking aromas; cigarettes.

What do I feel? Everything is warmer to the touch; my feet connect with cobblestones; cool breezes kiss my skin.

What do I see? Forsythia and dogwood are blooming; the Washington Monument comes into view as I walk down the hill; spring break tourists walk dazedly, lugging Disney tote bags.

What do I taste? One piece of chocolate savored for several minutes. It reminds me of eating Almond Joys as a child when I used to nibble around the almonds and save them for last!

The sense walk offers an opportunity for a ‘beginner’s mind’ experience, or as Barbara Sher says, “When you start using senses you’ve neglected, your reward is to see the world with completely fresh eyes.” Instead of listening to the endless chatter of our minds, we start to hear the sounds of nature. Instead of smelling only what is close by, we learn to notice the aromas all around. Instead of being more familiar with the hard plastic of our digital devices than the feel of our own skin, we have a chance to rediscover the touch of something natural. Instead of focusing just on what’s relevant to us, we learn to look around and notice others. And instead of shoving food mindlessly into our mouths, we take the time to truly taste and be nourished.

Sense relaxation is about remembering what you innately know already. It is about giving yourself permission to just let go for a while. It is about being alive to your full experience. Try it.

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